Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Easy Way

Mormonism is filled with Women of Purpose, steely-eyed and determined matriarchs whose primary mission in life is to get the lumpen masses populating their wards to Do It The Right Way, whether It is food storage, or singing the Church hymns, or obeying the Word of Wisdom, or doing Family History. (There are Mormon Men of Purpose, too, but they tend to reserve their Purposefulness for the Scouting Program, and it's hard to take anybody seriously when they're dressed in short pants and epaulets.) These women are fearsome in their focus, relentless in their drive, unyielding in their efforts to drag the rest of us to Exaltation.

They are everywhere. The next time you're in a sacrament meeting where the opening hymn is something no one has sung since David O. McKay was Church President, something like "Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion" or "Does The Journey Seem Long?" or "What Was Witnessed In The Heavens", or the brethren are straining their way through the Minnie Rippertonesque high notes of "The First Vision", look around. Somewhere there is a Ward Music Committee chairman taking mental notes, neck craning, lips pursed disapprovingly, her steely eyes fixed, one by one, on each slacker mumbling his way through the unfamiliar lyrics, her keen ears noting each note missed by the beleaguered organist. "They'll be no rest for this sorry bunch!" she thinks. "They'll not enjoy the sweet, warm caress of 'We Thank Thee, Oh God, For A Prophet', not on my watch! There will be no 'Put Your Shoulder To The Wheel' here, not until they have mastered every other piece in the hymnbook!"

Have you ever been stopped in a Church hallway, and had a clipboard shoved at you, holding a sign-up sheet for bulk orders of blueberries, red winter wheat, or Army surplus C-rations? A Woman of Purpose was doing the shoving. Have you ever agreed, even though you're terrified of heights, to climb a 30 foot ladder to affix a star made of artistically cut Sprite cans and battery-powered twinkly lights to the Cultural Hall ceiling, because the ward Christmas party decorations were "lacking something"? Women of Purpose are EXTREMELY persuasive.

I happen to love these women. I'm terrified of them, but I love 'em.

Sister Grapes is a Woman of Purpose, Family History Division. When I was maybe eleven years old, the Bishop gave me permission to take Sister Grapes's Geneology class, which was held during Sunday School time. Her mastery of the subject was encyclopedic, her innumerable Books of Remembrance, packed with pedigree charts and family group records and grainy Xeroxes of old documents, as thick and intimidating as a complete set of the Britannica. She was well acquainted with old cemeteries and musty town clerk's offices and forgotten archives in backcountry church houses. These were her people, and they were ALL going with her: "WE LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND! YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" Her class was the closest I've ever come to being a Marine.

It was too much for me. I felt like Father Hennepin, the first time he saw Niagara Falls: Inspired, but overwhelmed. I quit.

The thing is, once a Woman of Purpose tattoos you, you stay tattooed. And now that the time is right, the wisdom and knowledge of Sister Grapes is coming back. I feel a little like Daniel-san: WAX ON! WAX OFF! CRANE KICK!!!!

And today, it's easy.

There are a lot of family history research sites on the web, some of them very helpful, some of them poorly managed and rarely updated. The National Archives in Great Britain is a great resource. The Ellis Island Foundation offers a remarkable array of data on immigration. The most comprehensive site is, which affords you access to a dizzying variety of documents, in many cases allowing you download photographic images of the originals (the basic site is free, but the good stuff costs money. Whatever your habit -- old birth certificates, gelato, heroin -- it's always the same: the first taste is free, then it's Pay up, Charlie).

Here's an example from, a copy of the 19 December 1869 marriage certificate of James Squib Hanson and Charlotte Childs, my great-great grandparents:

It's tough to see in this image, but the document states that he was 23, she was 21, that they were married in Saint Andrews Parish, on Haverstock Hill in the borough of Camden, County Middlesex (which is part of metro London), that he was a bookbinder by trade, and that they made their newlywed home at 9 Preston Street, Camden. Both their fathers were deceased, but in life George Hanson had been employed as a watchmaker, and Joseph Childs had been a whitesmith, a metalworker who specialized in tin.

A couple of more keystrokes, and I learned that Saint Andrews had been built in 1865, was badly damaged by Nazi bombs during the Blitz, and was razed in 1955. A few more, and I learn that today you can purchase a lovely studio apartment in Bellsize Park, just down the street from Haverstock Hill, for a cool 199,000 pounds (about $326,000), which leads me to think there's been some gentrification. On Google Earth, I can see the streets of Camden, see the shops and the clubs and the people queued up at the ATM outside of the local HSBC.

It's the Easy Way. Information that would have required months of digging and possibly an overseas trip now comes by paying a fee and pressing a few buttons.

I am collecting my people. I am bringing them back. Sister Grapes would be proud. Disgusted at my lilly livered softness, perhaps, but still proud.

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